The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XV. Changes in the Language since Shakespeare’s Time

§ 3. Changes in spelling

In spite of the changes in the pronunciation of English since the close of the sixteenth century, the spelling has altered little. Middle English spelling was phonetically defective; but, still, every writer tried to make it represent his own pronunciation. The result was a varying orthography. This continued into the modern English period, with additional variations caused by attempts at etymological spelling. In the early years of the seventeenth century, the same volume, sometimes the same page, has such differences as the following: beene, bene, bin; detter, debter; guests, ghests; yles, isles; vitaile, victuals; hautie, haughtie; he, hee; least, lest. But it began to be felt more convenient to keep one spelling for a word; and, by the end of the eighteenth century, our orthographical system was practically in its present shape. Early in that century, Robinson Crusoe has surprize, lyon, tyger, cloaths, taylor. Fifty years later, controul, publick, dutchy, cryer, interiour occur in Burke’s Present Discontents. Johnson spent much time and trouble in adjusting what he calls our “unsettled and fortuitous” orthography; but he confesses that he was often obliged “to sacrifice uniformity to custom”: to write convey and inveigh, deceit and receipt, fancy and phantom. An examination of his Dictionary will show that he successfully anticipated the orthography that triumphed, or, perhaps, his way commended itself to writers and printers; for, with a few exceptions like chymist, domestick, dutchess, translatour, his spellings are ours.

Modern spelling is marked by two features; fixity (such diversities as judgment by the side of judgement notwithstanding), and an almost entire dissociation from the spoken language. Phonetic representations like bet, fin, hop, put, are few. On the whole, we spell by the eye, not by the ear. The ear helps little in a language where one sign may represent several sounds, as ch in which, chemistry, machine; and i in pick, pike, pique; or where one sound may be represented by a variety of signs, as in go, oath, stone, dough, sow, sew; and in call, keen, deck, chaos, quoit.

Though a fixed orthography has not generally checked phonetic change, the spelling has, in certain instances, helped to restore an older pronunciation, as noted before in regard to oi and h. So, too, in words like backward, forward, Edward, where, in the seventeenth century, the w sound was regularly dropped. The n sound is now generally heard in kiln, where it became mute in early modern English. A number of words had letters inserted, rightly or wrongly, as a clue to the etymology. In some of these, the insertion has not affected the pronunciation, as b in doubt; c in scent, victuals; g in foreign; l in salmon; s in island. In others, the letter has gradually come to be pronounced, as c in perfect, verdict; th (for t) in apothecary, anthem; l in fault, vault, falcon, solder. The struggle of perfet to keep its ground against perfect is visible in Milton’s poems, where perfect and imperfect occur thirty-four times, twenty-two of them without c. His Areopagitica has perfeted and autority. Fault was pronounced without the l sound till into the eighteenth century. Pope rimes it with ought, thought; Dr. Johnson says, “The l is sometimes sounded, sometimes mute. In conversation it is generally suppressed”; and Goldsmith writes,

  • Yet he was kind, or, if severe in aught,
  • The love he bore to learning was in fault.
  • At the present day, solder and falcon, may be pronounced with or without l; while falconry and falconer have no l sound.

    Finally, three of the eccentricities of English spelling and pronunciation may be mentioned. Originally, the noun ache differed in spelling and in pronunciation from the verb ake, as speech from speak. About 1700, however, the noun began to be confused in pronunciation with the verb, and then in spelling. Dr. Johnson registers both forms but makes no distinction. He derives the word—wrongly—from Greek, and, consequently prefers ache. For both words we now have the spelling of the noun and the pronounciation of the verb. The old pronunciation of the noun lingered as a stage tradition into the nineteenth century, which explains the saying of the O.P. rioters (1809), “John Kemble’s head aitches,” where they gave the verb the sound of the noun. Evidently, Thackeray considered this pronunciation sufficiently well known to his readers in 1849–50, for he writes—perhaps imitating Shakespeare’s pun in Much Ado

  • … Lady Brouncker; who was a druggist’s daughter, or some such thing, and as Tom Wag remarked of her, never wanted medicine certainly, for she never had an h in her life. (Pendennis, chap. VII.)
  • Bowl, a vessel, and bowl, a ball, are now spelled and pronounced alike. Originally different, they continued distinct into the eighteenth century. Later, the pronunciation of the former word and the spelling of the latter came to be adopted for both. Colonel, with the first l sounded as l, was trisyllabic in the early part of the seventeenth century, as in Milton’s
  • Captain or Colonel or Knight in Arms.
  • Soon after the restoration it became disyllabic. “It is now,” says Dr. Johnson, “generally sounded with only two distinct syllables, col’nel.” But another form coronel had lived in popular usage; and, in the nineteenth century, while the spelling with l remained, the pronunciation with r was adopted.